Weathering tells the story of a family: Ada and her small daughter Pepper and Ada’s mother, Pearl, who also happens to be dead. Ada and Pepper have returned to Pearl’s house by the river to clean it out and do it up before selling it and moving on. In the beginning Ada releases Pearl’s ashes into the river, and through this act the woman appears. I’m not a fan of ghost stories, in general, but this is not exactly a ghost story. A story with a ghost in it, with a twist, is perhaps more accurate.
The three female characters are the real core of the book, as we come to understand their relationships through lives which are led surprisingly separately. Pepper, the youngest of the three (she’s only 7) has lived a life being dragged around from place to place by her mother, never staying anywhere very long and never getting attached. She is terrified of going to school, school having always been a source of conflict in her and her mother’s life. She finds Pearl’s house both interesting and boring; out in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do but watch the river pass by. Then she discovers her grandmother’s cameras, her books about birds, her photographs, and through the media of photograph she begins to fix herself in her own life. Pepper is an absorbing character, strangely authentic despite having a voice beyond her years. She grows to love the new house, manages to settle, despite her reservations, at the local school. For Pepper, being at their Grandmother’s house allows her to set down some roots, to settle.
Pepper’s trajectory is quite different to that of her mother’s. Ada is rootless, deliberately so. She is conflicted and guilty about her escape from her mother’s house, not eager to return. From the beginning she is clear that her presence there is temporary, she is only going to be there long enough to fix up the house and sell it. She doesn’t want to reconnect with the other villagers, all of which are suffering the isolation and degradation of a village under decay. Yet somehow she gets suckered in. Whilst reflecting on what it is that drove her to leave, the loneliness and her awkward relationship with Pearl, her determination to leave it all behind for a life which is equally uncertain wavers. Will she set down roots in this place where her own awkward daughter seems to be settling in? I’ll let you read the novel to find that out.
Then there is Pearl. Pearl is the most nebulous, least settled of the characters. Perhaps that’s because she’s the ghost, but her character is like the mist rising from the fields: impossible to grasp. She begins in the river, eventually making her way all the way to the house. Wherever the water goes, whichever form it is in, she can follow. She clings, wanting to remain, to understand. Eventually she reveals herself: first to Pepper, who has never met her before, and later to Ada. Through their quiet interactions, the love buried deep within their silent relationship unfolds and we learn how Pearl herself, seeming blended into the landscape, had longed to escape, had intended to, and only set down her roots reluctantly. As she describes here:
“Why did she do it? After all it was always a trial, what with the cold in winter that made her face so stiff. Or clouds of midges in summer, the devils biting her wrists and eyelids. Rain wrecking everything. Winds knocking the tripod over. Difficult to go for a piss without at least some of it trickling down her leg in the hurry to get it over with before some walker came along.
But she knew why. She could remember exactly why, even now. For the way that time seemed to slow down and stretch, measured in the river’s ripples rather than by clocks and mealtimes. For the invisibility. For the hush. To forget. To make some sort of record – but of what she wasn’t sure exactly. To notice things she wouldn’t otherwise have noticed: dragonflies hunting, the patterns of light, the specific way that water poured over a dipper’s back.”
The landscape itself is the pivot around which the book revolves. The isolated house, the endless flowing of water: the river, rain, snow, ice; its dripping in puddles, the lightning. The presence of the landscape is quite visceral in this book, heavily focused throughout the story and described with infinite beauty, like here:
“It had been raining forever. Sallow days, like something woollen left on the line too long, its colours rinsed out. The trees smeared into wet air. There was no going out but the woods and river looked different every day and she kept watching them from the window, not wanting to miss anything.
She turned the page. It was late afternoon: just on the cusp between light and dark. What her mother called dimpsy even though Pepper had never heard anyone else call it that. It was hard to see the next picture and when she looked up it had suddenly gone very dark, the sky turning the same green as boggy water. The wind knocked against the house. Lightning lit the sky like an X-ray, showing the pale bones of the trees. Pepper stood in the window and watched, remembering her own bones showing up on a screen when she’d swallowed that bit of metal which was stuck in her chest.”
The landscape is so damp, there is such wetness and cold in this wintery book that I found myself shivering on the train whilst reading it. It was almost a depressing influence, the endless boggy dampness, the damage and decay it causes.
Weathering is a beautiful and clever book. It is a story about the weather, about the house being worn to decay by weather, about how we become weathered to each other and our homes. All of the women follow a similar path, becoming attached to a place which seems to do its utmost to reject them. They become weathered to each other, despite their apparent difference in desire. The beautiful descriptions of the landscape, the river, the endless rain and snow form a stunning backdrop to a delicately balanced story. Perhaps it was the cold, the rain, the sense of isolation and decay, the beautiful descriptions and language, but this book is heavily reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, a comparison which could only be complimentary being both a brilliant novel and a personal favourite of mine.
It made me shiver, it made me cold and damp and made me long for roaring fires and a warm blanket to cuddle down under as I read. I was charmed by Pepper, frustrated by Ada and Pearl. The behaviour of the villagers made me smile, their burdens so familiar and yet so unique. It is a cold and unwelcoming landscape in which the warmth of three women stands out as a testament to mother/daughter relationships, the difficulties of them and the rewards.